Couldn't peep it with a pair of bifocals/
I'm no joka, play me like a joka /
Be on ya like a house on fire, smoke ya!"
I often wonder if Hip Hop columnists grow weary of ending their pieces with "R.I.P. (insert deceased rapper's name here)"?
My mother, who constantly scans the media for tidbits I might want to include in this column, called me early on the afternoon of Nov. 14 to ask me if I had heard about the rapper who just died. She had jotted the information on a piece of paper and tried to recall the unusual name of the group that the rapper belonged to: "the Wa Tu, no ... the Wu Tong ..."
That's when I knew.
I cannot truthfully say that I was terribly surprised when I had heard that the Wu-Tang Clan co-founder Russell Jones (aka Ol' Dirty Bastard/Dirt Dog/Dirt McGirt/Big Baby Jesus/Osiris, et al.) died of a heart attack just a day prior to his 36th birthday in November. Yet I was nonetheless saddened that someone who was struggling to put his life back together after years of "dirty" living was suddenly gone.
Though not a huge fan, I admit having a twisted appreciation for his, well, twisted, and often garbled, lyrics. ODB's unrehearsed, slurred style of assaulting the microphone complemented the Wu-Tang's sinister, gritty urban folklore. Some Wu-Bangers (as rabid Wu Tang Clan fans were often called) saw ODB as the consistently drunk, rude and lewd comic foil that usually had something deeply poignant to say beneath the cloud of inebriation and unpredictable behavior.
The Wu-Tang Clan was the East Coast's answer to Death Row's early '90s stronghold on the Hip Hop industry. While most kids were trying to emulate Snoop Dogg and other West Coast "gangsta-rappers" with their un-tucked, plaid flannel shirts and bandanas, a crew of kids from Staten Island and Brooklyn executed the ultimate sneak attack. Their mixture of Five Percenter cosmology, cultural activism, references to classic Shaw Brothers kung fu flicks and deftly executed lyrical wizardry took the industry by storm. If that weren't enough, the Wu-Tang Clan also introduced their own clothing line (Wu-Wear) and a new slang that only a Brooklyn-bred sociologist could decipher. Indeed, a new movement was born and Old Dirty Bastard was right in the middle of it.
During the WTC's hostile takeover of the 1990s, ODB's behavior ranged from mischievous to outright bizarre, most notably when he lurched onto the stage during another performer's acceptance speech at the 1998 Grammy Awards telecast and feebly announced that "Wu-Tang was for the children." After several traffic violations, a number of arrests, a stint in rehab and two years in prison (during which he was rumored to be on suicide watch at one time or another), it became apparent that ODB was in way over his head.
After signing to Damon Dash's Rock-a-Fella Records label immediately following his 2003 release from prison, ODB kept a relatively low profile as compared to his now-infamous antics from his Wu-Tang heyday. Yet, his untimely death -- recently determined to be a direct result of a combination of cocaine and a prescription painkiller -- comes at a point when we find Hip Hop music and culture at yet another public relations crossroads. Soon after ODB suffered his fatal heart attack, a Bay-area based rapper named Mac Dre was killed during a highway shooting in Kansas City followed by the embarrassing, on-stage mêlée at the VIBE Music Awards. Most recently, Indiana Pacers forward Ron Artest breathed new death into Hip Hop culture by proudly flashing a promotional copy of his new CD to The Today Show's Matt Lauer while grinning and dodging questions about his alleged assault of a fan during the now-infamous Pacers-Pistons brawl in November.
One step forward, two steps back.
While none of Hip Hop's woeful existence exonerates ODB from his self-destructive behavior, life goes on. While E! True Hollywood Story writers are likely putting pen to paper trying to connect the dots around ODB's tragic life, upscale, urban apparel designers have yet another dead Rap icon to airbrush onto the backs of overpriced t-shirts and jackets alongside Big L, Freaky Tah, Big Pun, Jam Master Jay, Tupac and Biggie. And as this thing called Hip Hop continues to morph into something barely recognizable by those who created it, perhaps a few of us will see Ol' Dirty Bastard's beleaguered existence as an opportunity to seize the best of the best and leave the rest behind before Hip Hop -- like many of the young godz who consume it -- flickers and fades long before it was meant to.
Oh, I almost forgot: ODB, rest in peace.
KEVIN BRITTON writes about Hip Hop music and its impact on popular culture. His column appears monthly in CityBeat.